Commentary

Shaffer: A different Memorial Day monument at NCSU

jshaffer@newsobserver.comMay 25, 2014 

  • Observing the day

    A Memorial Day ceremony will be held at 5 p.m. Monday at the N.C. State University Memorial Belltower, where the “Swords to Plowshares” memorial is up temporarily. Poetry readings and songs follow at 7 p.m. at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. The monument will travel to the Veterans for Peace convention in Asheville in July.

— Most tributes built to honor the world’s fighters come carved out of marble, shaped from bronze or leafed in gold – ornamented with weeping angels and wild-eyed horses.

Roger Ehrlich’s memorial springs from humbler materials, meant to impart a more nuanced message.

For about three months, he and some friends collected beer and soda cans, peeling off the tops and bottoms, hammering them flat and folding back the edges.

They set up a triangle of old orchard stakes in his Cary driveway and strung wires between each pole, then hung the cans in rows along the wires – silver side facing out.

What they got is a 24-foot tower made of recycled metal, a rolling hat-tip to all victims of war: the “Swords to Plowshares” memorial. It stands temporarily alongside the N.C. State University Memorial Belltower, manned 24 hours a day.

Ehrlich and his group, Veterans for Peace, hope visitors will remember that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the “war to end all wars.” It killed 16 million people, introducing the world to chemical warfare, flamethrowers and tanks.

The Wolfpack Belltower itself was built to honor those veterans, and this dedication appears on its side: “In memory of those who served their country in the world war.” On the tower’s door, it reads, “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares.”

Whoever decided on those words couldn’t have seen another global conflict coming, about four times as deadly.

But Ehrlich, 52, had a pair of grandfathers who served in World War I.

One of them, an Austrian, survived only to die in a Nazi concentration camp a generation later. The other, British, disguised himself in a German uniform and escaped a prisoner-of-war camp, only to be recaptured, wearing the wrong boots.

Ehrlich wants the Veterans for Peace memorial to spark discussions and stories about the cost of war on all sides, and to heal the wounds both physical and mental that soldiers still carry. With that kind of honesty, he hopes we won’t have to send as many more into harm’s way.

“I feel we’re disserving our veterans and our country when we just silently salute the flag and repeat platitudes,” he said, “when we know that many veterans and many members of the public believe that many of these wars didn’t really advance the cause of freedom.”

Veterans for Peace is a nonprofit based in St. Louis with the goal of publicizing the true causes and costs of warfare. Having served their nation, its ex-military members use their experiences to promote peace.

Their work isn’t always respected or welcome. This year, parade organizers in Duluth, Minn., banned a Veterans for Peace float from its Memorial Day parade. I expect many in the Triangle would support doing the same.

But when we talk about the terrible sacrifice that veterans make, and when we thank them for paying the highest price, I think it’s fitting to wish out loud that they don’t have to keep paying it. It’s not disrespectful, I think, to hope the wounded won’t have to go back for more. If it is, I apologize.

Bob Kennel is an Air Force veteran in Holly Springs. You may remember a column I wrote about him being born in Tryon Palace. This year, he helped organize Raleigh’s soul repair conference, which is aimed at helping with “moral injury,” a condition that comes from making difficult decisions under fire.

He met Ehrlich at the conference, where he first heard of Veterans for Peace. Learning of the “Swords to Plowshares” tower, he acted as a go-between at N.C. State, his alma mater.

“Veterans need help,” he said, “and peace is always better than war if you can stay away from it.”

The cans on Ehrlich’s monument make for a colorful display: Coca-Cola red, Yuengling off-white, Pepsi blue. But this is too solemn a landmark for commercial slogans. Instead, the cans’ silver insides reflect on the people looking at them, who they are, what they value and what they remember.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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